Putting on a Thinking Cap for Brain Research on the Space Station

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger astronaut Bob Thirsk shares with readers his perspective as a test subject for International Space Station investigations.

I operated many different science payloads during my six-month International Space Station expedition in 2009. Some payloads only required me to power up and check out the hardware. Once activated, either automated software or the ground science team took control of payload operations and completed the rest of the experiment.

Neurospat, on the other hand, was a payload that fully engaged me in the science and data collection. A cognitive function experiment from Belgium and Hungary, it depended on astronauts to operate all aspects of the experiment from start to finish and even to serve as experiment test subjects. As a fundamental neuroscience research investigation, Neurospat may help researchers better understand the human brain and how it functions.

Frank De Winne, my European crewmate, and I were the very first subjects for Neurospat. When Frank served as a subject, I would help him set up the hardware. When I was a subject, Frank would help me in return. The biggest challenge of hardware setup was to place the cap on our crewmate’s head without laughing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face when your crewmate is wearing a scalp-hugging red or blue polka dot cap with an electrical pony-tail and wires dangling around the face. We looked like jesters! 

In reality, this odd-looking cap is a sophisticated electroencephalographic, or EEG, measurement device that incorporates 64 electrodes within the fabric to monitor our brain waves. A few other electrodes hanging from the cap are applied elsewhere on our skin to monitor eye movements, muscle activity and cardiac rhythm.

An important task of the assistant was to apply just the right amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode using a syringe. The gel reduces the electrical impedance between the electrode and the subject’s scalp, improving the signal quality.

Bob Thirsk uses a syringe to inject a small amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode of Frank De Winne’s EEG cap. Meanwhile, Frank initiates the Neurospat software for his upcoming experiment session. (NASA)

The pony-tail of the cap connects to the Multi-Electrode EEG Mapping Module—say that three times quickly!—which is a unit within a payload rack in ESA’s Columbus laboratory. This unit not only collected the data from the 64 electrodes, it also transmitted it to the ground. At the end of each Neurospat session, there was a lot of data that needed to be transmitted!

The fun began once the hardware was ready, the cables were connected and the data was flowing. For the next 70 minutes Frank and I repetitively performed four different experiment tasks while free-floating.

A computer screen, which we viewed through a tunnel adapter, presented specific tasks to us. Two of these tasks assessed our perception of visual orientation. Using buttons on a keypad, we evaluated the orientations of lines and estimated the locations of dots on the face of an imaginary clock face. This portion of the experiment was tedious. Frank and I joked to ourselves that while Neurospat claims to be a cognitive function experiment, this portion of the experiment was secretly a sleep induction investigation!

The other two Neurospat tasks were visuomotor “docking” tasks that kept us attentive and wide awake. The objectives were to alternately pilot a simulated Soyuz-like vehicle to a docking port on the space station, or to manually dock a Progress-like vehicle as if we were a cosmonaut working from a control station inside the station. This was similar to a video game requiring the use of a joystick. As we worked to complete each docking task quickly and accurately, the EEG cap monitored the functions of our cerebral cortex. I loved this portion of the experiment, since the tasks appealed to my competitive instincts.

After the Neurospat equipment has been set up, the free-floating test subject performs 70 minutes of cognitive function tasks. (NASA)

Researchers are already analyzing the data from Frank, myself, and all of the other astronauts who have participated in Neurospat to date. They compare our performance in space to our performance on the ground, both before and after flight. The scientists are particularly interested in our brain wave patterns, since these provide insight into our neural and cognitive processes while we performed the tasks.

Scientists hypothesize that long-duration spaceflight affects an astronaut’s sensorimotor system and cognitive abilities. Specifically, they think astronauts may have difficulty determining which way is up, and that our cognitive processes in space may be degraded by stress, fatigue and disrupted sleep.

Neurospat data collection is scheduled to continue on the station through September 2012. The research team expects to have enough astronaut subjects by the end of this year to complete their analysis and publish their results. I enjoyed Neurospat, as it was an experiment that fully engaged me in the science and data collection, putting my training and skills to the test. For an astronaut who is interested in payload operations, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Dr. Robert (Bob) Thirsk is an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. He holds degrees in mechanical engineering, an MBA, and is also a medical doctor. Dr. Thirsk has been involved in various Canadian Space Agency and NASA projects and is a veteran of two space flights: STS-78 in 1996 and Expedition 20-21 in 2009.

Inspiring a Generation

The International Space Station Program Science Office would like to dedicate this entry of A Lab Aloft to the life and work of astronaut Sally Ride, who passed away July 23, 2012. In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Cindy Evans remembers working alongside Sally and the inspirational legacy she leaves behind.

I was just thinking about Sally Ride last week, while my family and I were on vacation in Russia. One afternoon we decided to visit the spectacular Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow. The impressive park that surrounds a soaring rocket features statues of some of the Russian spaceflight pioneers, such as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Reflecting on Valentina’s face quickly led to a family discussion of American space pioneers, including the first U.S. woman in space: Sally Ride.

Sally Ride was in the first group of astronauts to include women. Here she looks out of the space shuttle window to gaze at Earth from orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Of course, Sally is remembered for lots of things in addition to her first spaceflight mission. She was also a scientist and a champion of teachers, students and parents around the world because of her passion for education. It was this love of learning and the desire to share it with others that led to me getting to know Sally.

I met Sally in 1995 when she invited me to be part of her team to plan her space shuttle educational payload: KidSat. This was the pilot program for what would evolve into today’s EarthKAM, one of the most prolific education investigations on the International Space Station.

Sally’s concept for KidSat was simple: put an Earth-viewing camera on the space shuttle and let middle school kids take photos. Their target could be their own town, a place they are studying in history class, the Amazon rainforest, or the location of an event in the daily news. By letting kids control a camera from space, Sally knew they would be inspired as they learned.

Teachers used KidSat as a launching point to cover lessons on a wide variety of topics. They highlighted the basics of spaceflight, including gravity and orbits. Students applied KidSat to math and science, too. They learned the importance of precise calculations to make sure they could capture their targets. In viewing the final images, students covered Earth science and geography and honed their communications skills by describing their observations in writing. As a team-oriented task, KidSat reinforced the importance of working together to achieve greater successes.

When I was working with Sally in the mid-1990s, we were simply trying to see if KidSat could work. The first mission in 1996 was tested by teachers and students from only three middle schools: a rural school in Humbolt, Calif.; an inner-city school in San Diego, Calif.; and a magnet academy in Charleston, S.C. The small educational team included teachers from these schools and a few more.

Westbrook seventh-graders Emily and Jessica use a map and the Internet to determine the latitude and longitude of their next picture. (Credit: NASA)

Sally assembled a diverse team for KidSat, including education specialists from NASA’s education program, flight controllers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center mission operations, college students at the University of California, San Diego, database experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and a couple of interdisciplinary Earth scientists like myself to guide the science curriculum development with the small cadre of middle school teachers.

Every step of the way, Sally leaned on those teachers to make KidSat work. The teachers wrote the classroom activities and provided feedback on the spaceflight stuff (orbital dynamics for 6th graders—really?). They thought through the implications of conducting a mission in the classroom during the middle of the school year, which would include four days straight and midnight operations! The team also forecasted potential failure scenarios from a classroom perspective, such as: What if my dyslexic students transpose numbers? What if we can’t get Internet? What if it is cloudy?

This truly collaborative and interdisciplinary partnership that provided opportunities for KidSat continues today with space station’s EarthKAM. The inspiration and lessons spill over from science classes into other areas, such as art, math, English, and even gym!

Of course, both of Sally Ride’s Earth observation investigations were remarkably successful. KidSat grew during the first 3 flights of the program from 3 to 17 to 52 schools! Hundreds of schools have participated since that time, involving tens of thousands of students. Today, EarthKAM continues to inspire where KidSat left off. Pulling in thousands of participants with each operational opportunity, EarthKAM has reached more than 190,000 students to date.

Sally Ride’s legacy continues to inspire girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Credit: Sally Ride Science)

My reflection about Sally leads to the core of what she inspired and championed—innovative learning for middle school kids, and a celebration of our natural curiosity about Earth and the Solar System. Through her legacy, she will continue to inspire for generations to come and I am honored to have been part of her team.

Cynthia Evans, Ph.D., is Associate International Space Station Program Scientist for Earth Observations and Deputy Manager for Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office. Evans holds degrees in Earth Science and Geology, and has been active in Earth Observations from the space shuttle, the NASA-Mir Program and the space station. She has participated as a science team member in several Desert RATS analog missions, and manages the GeoLab workstation—a glovebox-based test article integrated into the Deep Space Habitat testbed. As a volunteer, Evans also taught several EarthKAM classes at local middle schools.



Experiencing the First Annual ISS Research and Development Conference

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Emily White, with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, shares her experience at the First Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

In late June, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, and the American Astronautical Society, or AAS, in cooperation with NASA, cosponsored the First Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Denver, CO. The conference promoted future space science opportunities through keynote speakers and a variety of breakout sessions focused on space research, accomplishments to date and educating attendees on pathways to space station utilization.

The major theme of the June conference was the “Decade of Utilization.” On the first day of the conference, NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati commented that the “station empowers us to understand our world.” CASIS, as the nongovernment nonprofit organization that manages the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory, facilitates use of the National Lab for improving life on Earth. By collaborating with AAS and NASA on this conference—the only annual gathering that showcases the full breadth of research and development aboard the station—the CASIS team was able to share this goal with nearly 400 attendees representing scientists and organizations from a variety of fields, including many investigators new to space.

CASIS staff members Justin Kugler and Ken Shields talking with conference attendees. (Credit: CASIS)

On day two, CASIS Interim Executive Director Jim Royston moderated a panel focusing on upcoming research opportunities on the station’s National Lab. Deepak Agrawal, our Director of Science and Technology, represented CASIS; Larry DeLucas, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discussed crystallization research; and Jeff Manber of NanoRacks discussed his company’s research platforms. These talks paralleled the current and near-term activities of CASIS. In fact, CASIS released our first Request for Proposals, or RFP, in the field of protein crystallography on the first day of the conference. An RFP in materials science, in collaboration with NanoRacks, will be released in the coming months.

As mentioned above, many new-to-space investigators attended the conference—an exciting success for the space science community that has long sought to attract new players to the space station. Those of us from CASIS were especially encouraged, since one of our major goals is to make space science accessible to a broader community. Toward this goal, the final day of the conference was aimed specifically at new users.

Implementation partners and potential investigators participating in the Tradeshow. (Credit: CASIS)

In the morning, CASIS Director of Operations Duane Ratliff moderated a workshop for new investigators on space station utilization. Expectations were that maybe only a handful of new researchers might attend the workshop, as it was the last day of the conference. Instead, the room was full of attendees, many of whom had never sent an experiment into space. An Implementation Partner Tradeshow complemented the workshop. Booths targeting potential investigators were set up by companies with expertise in developing and integrating payloads for flight to the space station.

Presentations and video footage of the First Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference are available on the CASIS website and the AAS website.

It is an exciting time at CASIS following the conference and the release of our first RFP. Having been with CASIS since almost the start, I’ve watched the organization grow and bring on talented team members, and the RFP release is a major milestone and an energizing achievement for all of us. On the second day of the conference, CASIS also announced a signed Memorandum of Agreement with COBRA PUMA GOLFTM to conduct space-based materials research projects for use in its sporting goods product line. Along with this announcement, we released our design for a “Space Is In It” product endorsement that will be awarded by CASIS to select products enhanced by National Lab R&D. A very busy week!

CASIS staff conducting meetings at our booth during the BIO conference. (Credit: CASIS)

The week prior to the Denver conference, CASIS team members attended the annual BIO conference in Boston, where we had a booth in the exhibit hall and productive and encouraging meetings with a variety of companies and foundations.

As the momentum builds from CASIS outreach events and announcements for research opportunities, we hope to attract even more pioneers in the R&D community and to support the efforts of the next generation of innovators.


Emily Roberge White works with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, in scientific communications. White previously worked in medical writing for the Eisenberg Center for Clinical Decisions and Communications Science and also does freelance science writing, editing and consulting. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a Master of Science degree in Molecular and Human Genetics and a Master of Science degree in Science and Technology Journalism.


Ringing Out 2012 by Chiming in on International Space Station Achievements

In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson looks back at the year in review for research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

As the year comes to a close, I like to take a moment to look back at all the amazing accomplishments from the previous twelve months for the International Space Station. There are lessons to be learned and goals to be evaluated as part of planning for the new year. But this is also a time to enjoy achievements and strides made via this orbiting laboratory in research, technology and education.

Keeping a Helpful Eye on Earth

The vantage point of station offers not only an impressive view of our planet, but the chance to capture and study important aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, waters, topography and more. The 2012 arrival of the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, known as ISERV, will enhance the viewing capabilities from orbit used to support disaster assessment, humanitarian assistance and environmental management.

This year an externally-mounted station instrument contributed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of monitoring and improving coastal health. The same Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, also assists the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, with scans to determine depth below murky waters, bottom type, water clarity and other water optical properties.

Assisting with disaster response became the secondary mission for the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC. This imager was originally intended for agriculture vegetation surveys to assist with crop and grazing rotation. When that primary science objective ended, the camera became part of the space station’s response efforts for global disasters as part of the International Disaster Charter.

Map of chlorophyll-a for Pensacola Bay derived from HICO data. Higher values (yellow and red) indicate high chlorophyll concentrations in the water that suggest algal blooms are present. Algal blooms can reduce oxygen levels in the water, leading to fish and other animal kills. Some algal blooms also contain organisms that produce toxins harmful to other life, including humans. (EPA)

Inspiring Future Generations

This year NASA’s continued support in educational areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) led to some exciting student-based activities and resources. With the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, or SSEP, for instance, 15 investigations were selected from close to 800 proposals of student inspiration and design. The results from these studies will be shared at the national conference held each year in Washington DC.

The YouTube Space Lab competition provided another opportunity that caught the attention and imagination of students around the world. Two investigations were selected as winners from more than 2,000 video submissions and many tuned in to watch as the experiments were conducted by astronauts live on orbit.

You can read about all of the education activities available to students to participate in space station science in our recently published “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” This retrospective book details station activities involving more than 42 million students and 2.8 million teachers across 48 countries from 2000 to 2012.

Joseph Avenoso (left), Gage Cane-Wissing (right), and Adam Elwood (not pictured), presented their findings on bone loss in microgravity as part of the 2012 SSEP National Conference. (NCESSE/Smithsonian)

Technology Testbed

The space station plays an important role as a microgravity testbed for emerging technologies. The JEM-Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, or J-SSOD, for instance, operated for the first time in 2012, launching multiple small satellites into orbit. This new capability provides a reliable, safe and economically viable deployment method for releasing small satellites, in addition to enabling the return samples to the ground for analysis.

Another exciting technology tested on station is the Robotic Refueling Mission, or RRM, which may help support future space exploration using advanced robotics to service vehicles and satellites in orbit. This capability does not currently exist, but is essential to long-duration exploration missions of tomorrow.

JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide preparing the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Exciting Discoveries for Human Health and Science Disciplines

Findings from station investigations are impacting human health both here on Earth and in orbit. For instance, recently published results related to bone health showed that a combination of nutrition, Vitamin D supplements, and high-intensity resistive exercise help the crew to preserve bone mass density without the need for pharmaceuticals. These findings also apply to the development of treatments for osteoporosis patients here on Earth, an estimated 44 million in the United States alone.

Crew health was highlighted in vision studies in 2012, as well, with the publication of two results papers focused on the impact of microgravity on astronaut vision changes. Research found that significant vision loss in 20 percent of crew members may derive from a combination of the spaceflight environment and changes in metabolism, with an enzyme related to cardiovascular health potentially playing a role.

A discovery of “Cool Flames” caused excitement in the physical sciences community this year. These low-temperature flames ignite via chemical reactions from fuel vapor and air, burning invisible to the eye. This knowledge can help with improving fire safety in orbit, but also has implications for cleaner and more fuel efficient combustion in engines here on Earth.

A burning heptane droplet during the FLEX investigation on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Ringing in the New Year

Looking forward to 2013, there are still so many exciting things to learn in the various disciplines studied aboard station. Whether in biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, human research, the physical sciences or even technology developments, there remains a huge potential for discovery. The advent of updated and new facilities planned for the station will help enable investigators in their research in these areas.

Along with the research taking place aboard station, we continue to see Earth benefits that derive either directly or as a spinoff of station science. I look forward to continuing to share these findings and stories with you in the coming year and through the lifetime of this amazing microgravity laboratory.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist


Remembering Dr. Bob Phillips

In today’s A Lab Aloft we remember Dr. Bob Phillips, who served as the chief scientist for Space Station Freedom, helping to pave the path for future research in orbit.

While I did not have the pleasure of working directly with Dr. Bob Phillips, he helped blaze a trail for research in space that played an important part in what eventually became the International Space Station (ISS) Program.

A doctor of veterinary medicine with a Ph.D. in physiology and nutrition, Bob started his career with NASA in 1984. Part of Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS) 1, which launched aboard space shuttle Columbia’s STS-40 mission in 1991, Bob had planned to serve as an astronaut payload specialist, but was grounded due to a minor medical condition. Instead, he played a key role as the principal radio contact between the crew and ground while they conducted the first mission dedicated to microgravity biomedical research.

Bob followed the SLS-1 mission with a three-year stint as chief scientist of Space Station Freedom, which evolved into today’s International Space Station. As the current space station program scientist, I can’t help but look back at Bob’s accomplishments and be inspired in my own goals and endeavors for research in orbit.

Mark Uhran, former assistant associate administrator for the International Space Station, recalls the contributions made by Bob during his tenure. “During the space station design phase, Bob Phillips was a pivotal voice in mediating between science and engineering to develop research requirements that were practical and achievable. He served as both chief scientist and as a member of the Space Station Utilization Advisory Subcommittee, where his pragmatic approach was invaluable in resolving a final design for what later became the ISS.”

Robert W. Phillips (Credit: Colorado State)

I recently spoke about Bob’s contributions to NASA with my colleague Jennifer Rhatigan, Ph.D., who was a leader in space station science during the station’s assembly and established the International Space Station Program Science Office. Jennifer, who served with Bob on a number of committees, remembered him not only as a scientist, but also as a gentleman who was a pleasure to work with.

“Bob brought a focus on science in the early days of the space station design (during the Freedom program),” Jennifer shared. “He recognized that science needs had to be part of the design and maintained that focus through the many early de-scopes and design changes. The space station science community of today is lucky there were people like Bob looking out for their needs 25 years ago.”

Bob continued his career with NASA and into retirement with a focus on outreach and education. According to his NASA Quest profile, Bob espoused a belief in lifelong learning and continued scientific endeavors.

“I don’t feel that I have any goals yet to accomplish, except to continue to accomplish and pursue new and interesting questions and challenges. I have retired several times and look forward to continuing to be a productive scientist educator. I am having too much fun to really quit.”

Bob passed away on Feb. 26, leaving behind a rich legacy including a book he wrote to communicate with the general public the importance of biomedical microgravity research, titledGrappling with Gravity: How Will Life Adapt to Living in Space?”

When I think about where we are now with research aboard the space station after more than a year of full utilization, I am still in awe of the accomplishments that are shared by those who contributed past, present and future to the station’s success. The flexible and adaptable laboratory we have today was built on the foundation of hard work and dedication from people like Bob Phillips and the way he helped to put science into an engineering marvel.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

SAGE Wisdom for Atmospheric Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Kristyn Damadeo shares the history of the SAGE investigation, scheduled for future use on the International Space Station. This technology can help researchers to better understand Earth’s atmosphere makeup, especially the health of our ozone layer.

The International Space Station houses some unique experiments and soon it will be home to an exciting new Earth science mission: SAGE III, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III.

SAGE III mounts externally to the space station and is a mission to study Earth’s atmosphere sponsored by the NASA Science Mission Directorate and led by NASA Langley Research Center. It will be the first Earth-observing instrument of its kind aboard station, taking accurate measurements of the amount of ozone, aerosols—tiny particles—water vapor and other key components of Earth’s atmosphere.

The SAGE Legacy

SAGE III is the first of its kind to operate on station, but the SAGE family of instruments has been taking atmospheric measurements for more than 30 years. SAGE III is the fourth generation in its family operated by NASA.

The artwork above belongs to the SAGE III instrument, which is part of a family of SAGE technology developed to help research Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The first SAGE instrument was flown on a satellite in 1979. SAGE I was a sun photometer that used solar occultation—a measurement technique using the sun as a backlight—to gather information on aerosols and important stratospheric gases in the atmosphere. SAGE I collected valuable data for nearly three years, until the power system on the satellite failed.

With SAGE I came the start of a global database for stratospheric aerosols, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide that is still used in the study of global climate. While SAGE I was active, it provided crucial input into the understanding of global, seasonal and inter-annual variability in climate and, in particular, trends in stratospheric ozone.

SAGE I was followed by SAGE II in 1984. SAGE II data helped to confirm human-driven changes to ozone and contributed to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of chemicals that harm the ozone layer. SAGE II lasted 21 years on orbit, allowing us not only to determine the initial extent of ozone changes, but also to measure the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. SAGE II saw ozone stop decreasing and begin to recover during its time on orbit.

Engineers at NASA Langley work in a clean room with the SAGE III instrument. (NASA Image)

Then in the late 1990s, SAGE III was developed by Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp. The first of the instruments was launched in 2001 on a Russian satellite, METEOR-3M. The second instrument was stored for a future flight of opportunity. The third was removed from storage and prepared for flight on the space station. The mission will enable researchers to fill an anticipated gap in ozone and aerosol data in the second half of this decade.


SAGE III will study Earth’s protective ozone layer from aboard station. Ozone acts as Earth’s sunscreen. When ozone starts to break down, it impacts all of Earth’s inhabitants. Humans, plants and other animals are exposed to more harmful rays from the sun. This can cause long-term problems, such as cataracts and cancer in humans or reduced crop yield in plants.

When SAGE III begins making measurements from the space station in late 2014, some models predict that stratospheric ozone should have recovered by 50 percent. The precise pattern of ozone recovery measured by SAGE III will help improve the models and refine our understanding of the atmosphere.

Particles in the upper Earth’s atmosphere cause the blue layer shown in this image of a sunrise taken from aboard the space station. SAGE III will measure these atmospheric gases from a similar perspective. (NASA Image)

Measurement Technique

SAGE III takes its measurements using solar and lunar occultation. Occultation is a technique for pointing and locking onto the sun or the moon and scanning the limb—thin profile—of the atmosphere as the sun or moon rises or sets. SAGE III will operate mostly autonomously and the data will be transmitted to the ground through the space station’s communications systems.

The space station provides the perfect orbit from which to take measurements of the composition of the middle and lower atmosphere. Our location aboard station also gives us a great view for our solar/lunar occultation technique.

Back in Action

SAGE III is scheduled to launch to the space station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon in mid-2014.

The SAGE III suite consists of a sensor assembly that has pointing and imaging subsystems and an ultraviolet/visible spectrometer; an European Space Agency- provided hexapod pointing system and a nadir viewing platform. The Canadian Space Agency-provided robotic arm will robotically move SAGE III from the Dragon trunk and install it on the Earth-facing side of the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-4, or ELC 4, storage platform. 

The graphic above depicts the SAGE III instrument, which will collect data to help researchers better understand Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The research results of the space station-mounted SAGE III will provide insights that will help humans better understand and protect Earth’s atmosphere. Only by understanding these changes will we be able to mediate future impacts on our environment. Much more data and research is needed to better understand and quantify our impact on our world’s climate system.

The SAGE program has a long heritage and is one of NASA’s longest running Earth-observing programs. Continuous long-term data collection is necessary to understand climate. Once it is on the space station, SAGE III will help to extend a long record of atmospheric measurements for the continued health of our Earth. The observations of SAGE III from station are crucial for providing a better understanding of how natural processes and human activities may influence our climate.

SAGE has been pivotal in monitoring ozone and making accurate measurements of the amount of ozone loss in Earth’s atmosphere. Today, the SAGE technique is still the best for the job. Although new technologies have come along to measure ozone, none are as thorough as solar occultation. Through this dataset, SAGE on the station will enhance our understanding of ozone recovery and climate change processes in the upper atmosphere. We also extend the scientific foundation for further sound decisions on environmental policy, both nationally and internationally.

Kristyn Damadeo is the Education and Public Outreach Lead for SAGE III on the International Space Station at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She has previously worked as a science writer and a newspaper reporter, specializing in environmental reporting. Damadeo has a degree in Communication Arts from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Learning to Control Colloids with International Space Station Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Donald Barker explains the complex world of colloids and how studying them aboard the International Space Station helps us understand and use them better here on Earth.

Colloids are fascinating. They are part of our daily lives, found in everything from our bodies to the products we purchase at the convenience store. Manufacturers use colloids and their unique structure and properties for wine making, coloring glass, and fabric softeners. You will even find them in your daily glass of milk!

So what exactly is a colloid? In our daily lives we generally think of traditional forms of matter: solids, liquids, gasses. Colloids, however, exist around and near the boundaries of these states—not quite being one or the other. Colloids generally take one of the following forms: aerosols, emulsions, gels, sols, foams or films.

Colloids form when particles disperse throughout a solvent, usually a liquid, depending on the purpose of the mixture. Colloidal particles are too small to be seen with ordinary optical microscopes. The size of the particles is somewhere between atoms and molecules, roughly 10 to 1,000 nanometer (or 1 micrometer). At such minute scales, physical interactions seem to work in mysterious and magical ways. This critical particulate size range is exactly where it needs to be in order to make it unlikely that they will settle out of their mixture; this property is why they are so useful.

For researchers interested in colloids, the International Space Station provides a unique laboratory environment to examine their properties. On Earth, gravity-induced settling or sedimentation changes or destroys the structure of a colloid over time. In microgravity, scientists have a stable setting where they can observe the particle interactions and structures while changing various environmental parameters, such as temperature and pressure.

Researchers are directly interested in the interactions occurring between the surface of the colloidal particles and their solvent. The mixture behaves in different ways, based on both the size of the colloid particles and their interactions with the solvent. Ongoing colloid investigations make use of space station facilities like the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), the Fluids Integrated Rack (FIR) and the Light Microscopy Module (LMM).

Don Pettit, Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, working with the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox (MSG) in the U.S. Laboratory. (Credit: NASA)

Understanding the behavior of colloids allows scientists to create models and process that can be used to enhance food and chemical preservation, evenly distribute ingredients used to produce glues, jellies and gelatins or even to control the movement of light in optical devices and materials. Controlling colloidal mixtures can help global industries create better, more reliable products and processes.

Astronaut T.J. Creamer working at the Light Microscopy Module, or LMM, facility aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Colloid studies occur regularly on the space station and one of these investigations is the Advanced Colloids Experiment-1, or ACE-1. The ACE-1 containment device holds up to 20 sample disks that, in turn, each hold up to 10 wells of colloidal particles. Astronauts mix the samples in each disk and then observe them using the LMM. The crew member takes pictures for downlink to investigators for analysis on the ground, where the investigators monitor and record colloidal structural changes and particle interactions.

The goal of ACE-1 is to understand how colloids move over time in the microgravity environment. By seeing how these particles naturally aggregate or cluster without the pull of gravity, scientists can learn how to control them. Essentially, they are looking to see how nature grows at the particle level, forming order out of disorder. Researchers hope to see how well their theoretical understanding compares to the world of everyday observations.

Scanning electron microscope, or SEM, images of a mixture of 3.8 micron diameter “seed” particles together with the bulk colloid—0.33 micron diameter Polymethylmetachrylate, or PMMA, spheres. Recent International Space Station colloid studies show a cycle of replication, as large crystals generate smaller ones that separate and continue to grow and produce. (Credit: P.M. Chaikin and A.D. Hollingsworth, New York University)

Another set of colloid studies aboard station is the Binary Colloidal Alloy/Aggregation Test, or BCAT investigation. The BCAT-6 study is the latest in a series of related experiments run on the station. It uses a sample growth module that holds 10 couvettes—small test tubes, each with a different colloid solution mixture. Observations begin following the stirring of each sample. Manual and automated time-lapse photographs record the separation over time.

Objectives of the BCAT suite of investigations include studying the dynamics between phase separation and crystallization in the solution, as well as how order arises out of disorder in microgravity.

These images show the BCAT sample growth module (left) and a close up of a BCAT-5 sample (right) showing structural changes in the mixture aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Another station investigation is the Selectable Optical Diagnostics Instrument – Aggregation of Colloidal Suspensions, or SODI-Colloid. This is a series of experiments using cell chambers that hold individual samples that are measured optically using a Near-Field Scattering (NFS) technique within the MSG.

Understanding how the particles making up colloids react, move, arrange and form crystals as the temperature reaches the critical point can help with the development of materials for devices using electromagnetic waves and signals to manipulate optics, such as plasma TVs.

This image shows a false color NFS image during aggregation showing the distribution of particles on the smallest of scales. (Credit: S. Mazzoni, ESA)

A very different colloidal mixture—a magnetic one—is studied in Investigating the Structure of Paramagnetic Aggregates from Colloidal Emulsions-3, or InSPACE-3. This series of microgravity studies focuses on mixtures with magnetizable particles of varying shape (spheres to ellipsoids) exposed to an alternating magnetic field.

These kinds of fluids are considered to be “smart” materials, which transition into a solid-like state or gel when exposed to a magnetic field. Understanding how to control and produce colloidal materials of this kind may help in the engineering of vibration dampening systems, enhanced earthquake structural designs, robotic systems, tunable dampers, and brake and clutch systems.

This image shows the evolution of colloidal structure within an applied alternating magnetic field. (Credit: N. Hall, NASA)

On Earth, colloids tend to collapse, change form, or sink, depending on particle size, shape, composition, fluid solvent mixture or environmental conditions; all highly dependent on the effects of gravity. This is why the space station provides an ideal laboratory setting for researchers to tease out the underlying physical properties of colloidal solutions. As we better understand the special and fascinating properties of colloids, researchers will be able to devise better technologies and products for use back here on Earth.

Donald C. Barker (Credit: NASA)

Donald C. Barker is a scientist with the International Space Station Program Science Office. Previously Barker served as a lead systems engineer, flight controller and researcher at the Johnson Space Center. He holds a double Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Psychology from Colorado State University, Master of Science degrees in Physics, Psychology, Mathematics and Space Architecture, and he is currently pursuing a Doctor in Philosophy in Planetary Geology at the University of Houston.

Flights of Flames for Fire Safety in Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft guest blogger, Sandra Olson, Ph.D., reveals some of the mysteries of how flames burn in microgravity, as well as how flame studies on the ground and aboard the International Space Station help with fire suppression and safety in space.

Whether dropping through a hole in the ground as part of a drop test or zipping through space aboard the International Space Station, flames behave in fascinating ways in microgravity! In the Zero Gravity Research Facility, or ZGRF, at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, I get to study solid fuel combustion behavior first hand. ZGRF is a historic landmark and the deepest drop tower in the world with a freefall of 432 feet. Drop test experiments, like the one pictured below, look at material flammability during the brief, 5.18-second period of microgravity achieved as the sample package falls.

During a Zero Gravity Research Facility tour, Facility Manager Eric Neumann (far left) shows International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson (front center) and her colleagues one of the drop packages used in the facility. The top of the white vacuum drop shaft is in the background. (NASA/Marvin Smith)

The drop test was remotely run from the ZGRF control room. Controllers activated the miniature wind tunnel apparatus to establish a spacecraft ventilation flow environment, then ignited the material and dropped the experiment. Once the sample releases into freefall, the experiment is completely automated. The drop vehicle lands in the catch-bucket at the end of the 5.18 second test.

Experiment images (left) and catch-bucket facility images (right) appear on the ZGRF control room screen. (NASA/Marvin Smith)

We have performed many drop tests studying how materials burn in microgravity compared to how they burn in normal gravity, or 1g. What we have found is that many materials actually burn better in the spacecraft flow environment than in 1g. This is because on Earth the buoyant flow—created when less dense materials rise within greater density environments—is strong enough to blow the flame out with oxygen reduction. In low ventilation, however, the slow flow provides the oxygen at an optimum rate, so the flame can survive to lower oxygen levels than in 1g. To learn more about the concepts of microgravity and combustion in the space environment, watch this “NASA Connect” video.

A flame burning in microgravity at the end of a 5.18-second drop from the Zero Gravity Research Facility. The material for this test was cotton fabric burning in 5 centimeter per second air flow, which is the typical International Space Station atmosphere. Crew clothing is often made of cotton. (NASA)

Enhanced flammability in space was recently proven in longer duration burn experiments aboard the space station as part of the Burning and Suppression of Solids, or BASS, investigation. For this study, the crew of the space station gets to play with fire. As a co-investigator, I get to observe via video on the ground and directly talk to the crew as they ignite a flame in the controlled area of the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG, filming the behavior of the burn.

After his recent return to Earth, Astronaut Don Pettit, who worked on the BASS flame study in space, testified to a Senate subcommittee about the investigation and the importance of combustion experiments in microgravity.

“If you look at fire, fire and its either discovery or learning how to tame fire is what literally brought us out of the cave and allows us to have our civilization in terms of what we know now,” said Pettit. “Fire gives us our electricity. Fire allows us to have vehicles, airplanes and cars, and machines. It literally turns the wheels of our civilization…space station now offers us the ability to dissect deeper down into what the processes are in combustion… by looking at it in an environment free from gravity, free from the gravitational-driven convection. And this allows us to look at things and figure out what’s going on at a level that you could never see without taking it to space…and what we found is that things are more flammable than what we thought.”

(Left) Astronaut Joe Acaba runs BASS in the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG. (Right) Astronaut Don Pettit holds up a burned acrylic sphere to show the science team on the ground how a fine layer of soot coats the wake region of the material, while the front part of the sphere looks like a meteorite with the surface marred with many craters. (NASA)

These experiments so far have confirmed that when the air flow is turned off, the flame extinguishes rapidly as it runs out of oxygen, with no fresh air flow. The MSG provides an enclosed work area, sealed to contain fluids, gasses and equipment for the safe running of combustion experiments. The crew views the burning material through the front window. The flame can be seen through this window in the picture with Joe Acaba (above). You also can see Don Pettit working on a previous run of BASS aboard station in this video.

This finding reaffirms the space station fire alarm protocol to turn off any forced air flow in the event of a fire alarm. Surprisingly, though, when the astronauts used a small nitrogen jet built into the flow duct for fire suppression testing, the flame did not go out when the air flow was turned off, if the nitrogen jet was on. In fact, the flame appeared to get brighter. Researchers intend to continue to study this unexpected discovery in which the nitrogen jet was able to entrain air all by itself, as the finding has important implications for gaseous fire suppression systems like the
CO2 suppression system currently employed on station.

Acrylic sphere burning as part of the Burning and Suppression of Solids, or BASS, investigation aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

BASS results also catch the attention of future spacecraft designers. One of the sample materials burned in BASS is acrylic, also called Plexiglas. This material is under consideration for spacecraft windows because of its excellent strength, mass and optical properties. However, it also burns quite well in the space station air environment. BASS payload summary reports mentioning acrylic have spurred a number of recent inquiries to the investigator team about the flammability of this material. After all, you don’t want your spacecraft windows to catch on fire!

A wax candle flame in very low air flow is nearly spherical with an inner sooty layer near the wick, and an outer blue layer. This blue is due to chemiluminescence, which is when a chemical reaction emits light. (NASA)

The BASS investigation has direct applications to spacecraft fire safety and astronaut wellbeing. A combustion experiment, BASS was jointly designed by scientists and engineers at NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, or USRA. BASS operations are scheduled to begin again aboard the space station in the spring of 2013.

The best part of my job as a researcher is the thrill of discovering new phenomena unique to microgravity. It is exciting to work with something as beautiful and powerful as fire, especially in these unique microgravity environments. The fire images have inspired me to create art images from them. 

2009 Art “Fire’s Ribbons and Lace”
The delicate and fractal nature of charring cellulose is amplified here in repeated magnified images of a flame spread front over ashless filter paper. (Sandra Olson)

2011 Art “Flaming Star”
Microgravity flames converging toward the center of the starburst ‘implode’ against an outflow of wind, creating a diffusion flame ‘supernova.’ (Sandra Olson)

The more we understand the behavior of flames with given materials and conditions, the better prepared we will be to harness their potential and contribute to fire safety in future space exploration. What’s next will depend on what we discover from these ongoing tests, building on the knowledge already gained from these important combustion studies.

Sandra Olson, shown here with the microgravity wind tunnel drop apparatus.

Sandra Olson, Ph.D., is a spacecraft fire safety researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, as well as the project scientist and co-investigator for the BASS investigation. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. She has worked at NASA since 1983, most of that time studying microgravity combustion.   


International Space Station Engages with Education

In today’s A Lab Aloft Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist Camille Alleyne talks about a new education publication that highlights more than a decade of inspiring student opportunities with space station investigations and activities.

This October I was excited to see the publication of a book that was not only an international collaboration, but more than a decade in the making: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” Readers can find the PDF version of the publication here and are encouraged to visit the space station’s opportunity site for current education activities.

From a personal perspective, the value of the space station is as a platform for promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, and engaging and exciting students in their studies in these areas. We can really inspire and increase interest in these subjects so that our youth go on to become the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers.

In the past 12 years of operation, there have been more than 42 million students, 2.8 million teachers and 25,000 schools from 44 countries involved in education activities aboard the space station. This is a bonus in addition to our space station research for exploration, scientific discovery and applied research.

This publication is the follow up to “Inspiring the Next Generation: Student Experiments and Educational Activities on the International Space Station, 2000–2006,” and is a product of NASA’s ISS Program Science Office. The new document is the first time we worked to share these education activities in partnership with our international partners to show the benefits of space station research and education interactions that impact our life here on Earth. There was a team of education leads from each of the international partners that contributed to this publication, which is a comprehensive documentation of all the education activities conducted on the space station since 2000. This includes activities that are ongoing and will continue for the next few years.

Cover of the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” (NASA)

This book looks at education activities in several different categories. Students are able to get involved with experiments that fly on the space station. They also have opportunities to take part in competitions, with the winners getting to either fly their experiments on station or have a crew member perform some aspect of the challenge. Finally, students have the ability to participate in classroom versions of station investigations by either mimicking or outright partaking in the experiments happening aboard station.

An example of this is Tomatosphere, a Canadian Space Agency-sponsored plant investigation. Researchers fly tomato seeds aboard station, while students on the ground grow their own seeds in the classroom. The young scientists participate in the scientific process by comparing the differences in germination from seeds flown in space vs. those that never left Earth.

During a previous Tomatosphere program, students studied the growth of tomato plants in Miss Smith’s grade three class at Langley Fundamental Elementary in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The students took their plants home to grow in their gardens over the summer. (Tomatosphere)

When students engage directly with researchers flying their investigations aboard station, they usually play a role in data analysis and the setting up of studies before they fly. For instance, with the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC, a student-based staff participated in designing, building and controlling the camera remotely during primary science operations. So there are many ways for students to engage with the space station.

There are also opportunities to learn from demonstrations by astronauts previously done aboard station. Teachers can access and play these experiments in the classroom to demonstrate different scientific concepts and theories. Taking this one step further, students can even engage in real-time crew interactions via live downlinks or ham radio contacts.

With inquiry-based activities, students get to learn how real researchers work and how the scientific process functions simply by being allowed to ask questions, develop hypothesis and analyze data. They learn to think deeply and critically about different scientific concepts, which is a true value of education engagement with the space station.

A student at Lamar Elementary School in Greenville, Texas, proudly talks to an astronaut in space. (NASA)

The opportunity to collaborate with the international partners for this project was really interesting. I was able to gain insight into their education objectives and how they compare to those here at NASA. The Japanese Space Agency, or JAXA, for instance, puts a lot of emphasis not only on STEM education, but on using cultural activities as a way of inspiring the public. That is not something we focus on at NASA, but it was fascinating to see the diverse connection between art and science in these space-related education activities. Take for example the Space Poem Chain project, which used poetry to break barriers by using space as an inspiration for contributors from ages 8 to 98 from around the globe.

It was also fantastic to have Russian Space Agency contributions and to see the ways they go about inspiring their children. Also different from the U.S., the Russians use satellite development and communications technology as their main vehicle for engaging students, while simultaneously building their sense of wonder and skill. Seeing the different cultures and what their missions are in terms of educational goals, including how they manifest into activities, was fun to learn and then to share in this collaboration.

Students from Charminade College Preparatory, West Hills, Calif., run preliminary variations of their experiment in the lab. (SSEP)

We have one story from each partner highlighted on our Benefits website in the area of education. Now we get to take all of our collective efforts and extend the benefits of these activities across the partnerships to other students in other countries around the world. Building this education book with my colleague, Susan Mayo, was a unique experience; a very rewarding one. I look forward to the continuing and growing impacts of the space station.

I feel it is important to note that the inquiry-based approach to science education, like that done with the space station, is what scholars cite as the value that excites students to pursue careers in STEM based areas. I see more of an emphasis on this type of station educational activity in the future. I would also like to see younger participants for these station activities. Consider the Kids in Micro-g project, where we had 5th graders competing to design microgravity experiments. A group of nine year-old girls won and had their investigation conducted aboard station. This led to an actual scientific discovery that nobody expected, contributing to the body of knowledge in that area of physics.

NASA astronauts Catherine (Cady) Coleman and Ronald (Ron) Garan perform the Attracting Water Drops experiment from Chabad Hebrew Academy. (NASA)

The audience for this book is primarily space station stakeholders, but the activities that make up the content have the ability to impact students everywhere, no matter what culture or language. This book has some engaging opportunities that students all over the world could participate in. The thought that 8, 9, and 10 year-olds can teach us something new about exploration and going beyond what we think we know is really exciting! I would like to see what other young minds can contribute using space station education.

Camille Alleyne is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office with NASA’s Johnson Space Center where she is responsible for leading the areas of communications and education. Prior to this, she served as the Deputy Manager for the Orion Crew and Service Module Test and Verification program.  She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University, a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (Composite Materials) from Florida A&M University and a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering (Hypersonics) from University of Maryland. She is currently working on her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of Houston.

Remodeling Research for Astronaut Bone Health

In today’s A Lab Aloft blog post, guest blogger Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., reflects on the recent publication of results on human health space station research regarding the beneficial connections between bone density, diet and exercise.

This month, September 2012, marks the publication of a paper in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research documenting how crew members that ate well, had good vitamin D status, and exercised hard maintained their bone mineral density. There are several remarkable things in and about this paper that I would like to share in this blog.

From a science perspective, this marks the first documentation of protecting bone mineral density during space flight. It’s amusing that I have already gotten several questions about whether or not we can tell if it was the exercise or the nutrition that made the beneficial difference. The answer is no, we can’t. 

I suspect some folks would like to think it is just the exercise. I am quick to point out, however, that while I am somewhat biased as a nutritionist, I believe that all aspects were critical to the success of the program. There are plenty of non-NASA studies showing that inadequate nutrition leads to bone loss. I’ve also seen online summaries of research giving vitamin D the lead role—I guess it all depends on your perspective.

Regardless, nutrition (including and beyond vitamin D) and exercise are both very important. We are not going to set up experiments to determine if limiting one of these factors has a negative effect on bone, given that would clearly be the wrong thing to do for the crew of the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Expedition 30 flight engineer, is pictured near a snack floating freely in the Unity node of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

There has been immediate reaction to the Benefits for Bone from Resistance Exercise and Nutrition in Long-Duration Spaceflight: Evidence from Biochemistry and Densitometry paper. Some people feel that we can now proclaim spaceflight-induced bone loss a fixed problem and move on. This is clearly not the case, however, as what we found is that bone seems to be remodeling. In other words, bone breakdown still increases, but what happened here is that bone formation tended to increase as well, which appears to help maintain bone mineral density.

A big question remains: is the bone as strong after flight as it was before flight? Follow-on studies are underway to help answer this. Nonetheless, it is better to maintain bone mineral density with a question about strength, than to not maintain bone mineral density—which is where we’ve been up to now. We also hope to optimize both exercise protocols, for example using the Sprint Investigation aboard station, and nutritional aspects of bone health, as seen with the SOLO and Pro K studies. You can read more about these topics in my earlier blog entry on omega-3 fatty acid: Of Fish, Astronauts, and Bone Health on Earth.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Expedition 29 commander, performs a SPRINT leg muscle self scan in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Another striking thing about this paper was the team. We had two of NASA’s bone experts, Linda Shackelford and Jean Sibonga; one of NASA’s muscle/exercise experts, Lori Ploutz-Snyder; and nutrition experts from NASA and ESA, Sara Zwart, Martina Heer, and myself. Getting all teams to come together to work on this paper required a fair amount of choreography, including agreements on presentation, interpretation and description of the data.

As an aside, in the late 1990’s Dr. Shackelford led an effort to conduct bed rest studies with resistance exercise here on the ground. She published results that mirror what we found in the flight study. Bed rest is a model of space flight, and results in a different magnitude bone loss, but nonetheless it provides evidence useful in assessing flight studies. This is a perfect example of why we test things on the ground first, but then also test them in flight. We want to be sure to know what happens in actual space flight.

Another unique aspect of this paper is the time it took to pull everything together. It was early this year, on January 26, Sara Zwart and myself were sitting in the office trying to assess what data from the Nutrition investigation we should look to try to publish next. I mentioned that we had not published any of the bone marker data, and perhaps we could look at ARED/iRED differences. ARED is the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device aboard station that the crew uses to simulate free weight exercises on orbit, while the iRED is the Interim Resistive Exercise Device used for upper body strength development.

NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 flight commander, exercises, using the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, or ARED, in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Sara and I met very early, around 1 the next morning, at the Telescience Center—one of the back rooms in Mission Control. We were waiting for the crew aboard station to awaken so astronaut Don Pettit could collect his FD30 blood sample for the Nutrition and Pro K studies. Sara mentioned that she’d looked at the blood and urine bone marker data, and there didn’t appear to be major differences between the groups: resorption (bone breakdown) wasn’t different, and formation trended up, but wasn’t overly striking. I asked Sara if she’d looked at the bone densitometry (DEXA) data to see what happened with bone and body composition, and she said no, but she would. She logged in to our lab database, and about 30 minutes later turned and said, “I take it back—there’s something there!”

I told Sara I would start working words, and she should start working tables. By 9:30 the morning of the January 27, 24-hours after we first discussed it, we had a 17-page draft of the manuscript, which included 3 tables of data and complete statistical analysis. It took us about a week (and some sleep) to clean up the draft, and we then sent it out to the coauthors to start the process of bringing in their expertise and adding in details. This was especially important regarding the exercise aspects and the bone measurement details, which elude us nutrition types, along with overall interpretations.

Essentially taking eight months from concept to publication, the journey for this paper is simply incredible! We’ve never had a scientific paper go from essentially the first look at the numbers to print this quickly before, and, well…you never count on something like this to happen again.

Cover of the September 2012 edition of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research where the Benefits for Bone from Resistance Exercise and Nutrition in Long-Duration Spaceflight: Evidence from Biochemistry and Densitometry paper on astronaut bone health published. (Credit: JBMR)

Scott M. Smith leads NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab at Johnson Space Center. He completed his doctorate in nutrition at Penn State and conducted postdoctoral research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota. Smith leads experiments, both on the ground and in space, aimed at improving astronaut nutrition. Smith’s two space station experiments include Nutritional Status Assessment and Pro K.  The Pro K study is designed to investigate the roles of animal protein and potassium in bone loss.